Stuart Wilde in his book “The Quickening” tells the following story:
I was wandering the Souk (market) in Marrakesh, when I became attracted to a leather bag hanging from one of the trader’s stalls. I asked how much he wanted, and he replied, “10 diram.” I shook my head and offered him 11 diram. He shook his head and said the best he could do was 9. I shook my head and insisted that I would pay no more than 12. He waved his arms about told me about his wife and eight kids. Then he said it was daylight robbery, but he would, on this occasion, accept 7 diram and this was his very last offer. I “uhmed” and “ahed” and stroked my chin, and said that 15 was my final offer. He eventually agreed to sell the bag for 5. He agreed to take 5; I increased my offer to 17. His concentration was on the 5 diram he was about to get. I wasn’t about to contradict his reality. I paid him 5, thanked him, wishing him the strength of a hundred camels in the courtyard. I wandered on.
Perhaps the story is true, perhaps not. I tend to believe it because Mr. Wilde’s experience in the Marrakesh market closely resembles the type of communication I see when people are disputing.
Conflicts arise fundamentally because people have interests that are not being satisfied or are experiencing injustices that are not being reconciled. As a conflict intensifies, each person becomes more focused on his or her personal needs and tunes out the needs of the other person. At some point, a person’s capacity to listen disappears. This seems to occur at about the same time the need to be heard becomes paramount. Each person is focused on personal needs, wants desperately to be heard, and is so intent on being heard that he cannot hear the other person.
This is when the peacemaker is most valuable. First, the peacemaker slows the process down. One person speaks at a time without interruption. Everyone has an opportunity to speak as much as necessary, but only one at a time. To further slow the process down and help people listen, the peacemaker may ask the non-speaking person to be prepared to summarize what has just been said. A tradition in a 16th century French monastery required an accurate summary of what was just said before a monk could speak to the matter at hand. When the speaker is finished, the listener summarizes back. Now the speaker is feeling like she is being heard and her needs are beginning to be acknowledged. The listener does not feel as compelled to marshal facts and arguments in an immediate defense of what has been said. Consequently, the listener is now focusing on hearing correctly what has been said rather than concentrating on a blistering response. In this way, the dialogue of disputing is disrupted. As the process continues, the listener becomes the speaker, talks without interruption, and is heard as the new listener summarizes back.
The peacemaker consequently adds a new element to the conflict. By creating a new talking environment, the peacemaker allows the parties to move past the frustration of not being heard. The peacemaker becomes a sort of umpire, regulating when people can talk, how they talk, and how they listen. Thus, the peacemaker provides a service the parties cannot furnish themselves—structured discourse about difficult and emotional topics. As the parties learn that they can speak, listen, and be listened to, they see that they can work together. Thus, the beginning of collaborative problem-solving is established.
If the trader in Marrakesh had listened to Mr. Wilde, he would have profited handsomely. Instead, he chose to focus on his own needs, resulting in a much smaller profit. Remember the trader when you face your next conflict.
By Doug Noll